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France and Russia sevens capable of “something special” at Tokyo Olympics
We chart the course that took France and Russia through the Olympic Repechage tournament and booked their ticket to Tokyo 2020.
Sunday night was a joyous one for the players and coaching staff who secured their places at Tokyo 2020.
But, for France and Russia, who claimed the two women’s spots up for grabs at the Olympic Repechage tournament in Monaco, there is a sense that the best could yet be to come.
Certainly, that was the impression projected as several Russian players celebrated their women’s qualifier final win against Kazakhstan by forming a human bicycle and seemingly beginning to pedal to Japan.
Victory was one that the Russians had been working towards since they suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Spain in the final of the repechage in Dublin five years ago.
And, now that a debut appearance at the Games has been confirmed the team intends to make the most of it.
“These girls have worked so, so hard. We do five training sessions a day, they don't complain,” Graham Bentz, who has been working with the squad as a consultant, told World Rugby.
“I've been with men's teams around the world, but these girls are special and we are really expecting something special come the Olympics.”
Investment in players pays off
Revenge of sorts had already been secured by Russia when they beat Spain in the semi-final of the Rugby Europe regional qualifier in Kazan in July, 2019.
But England, who Russia had beaten in the pool stage, silenced the home crowd with tries from Heather Fisher, Emma Uren and Alex Matthews secured en route to a 19-0 win.
Defeat consigned Russia — and France, who had been beaten by England in the semi-finals — to the repechage, and an anxious wait was made longer by COVID-19.
The pandemic led to the postponement of Tokyo 2020, and ensured Russia’s players were unable to train for three months. But, with Bentz on board and the squad benefitting from investment in video analysis and medical facilities, a renewed emphasis was put on Olympic qualification.
Elena Zdrokova admitted in the build-up to the repechage tournament in Monaco that defeat to Spain in Dublin five years ago was “one of the most painful losses for our team”.
Zdrokova was one of the stars of the weekend at Stade Louis II and ended the repechage with nine tries to her name, second only to France sensation Séraphine Okemba.
Russia made serene progress to the knockout stage as they beat Samoa 32-0, Mexico 55-0 and Argentina 41-7 to top Pool A.
Samoa were then beaten again, 29-0, in the qualifier semi-final to set up a final against Kazakhstan. Any nerves that might have been felt in the Russian camp were settled within two minutes as captain Alena Tiron scored the first of her side’s six tries in a 38-0 win.
“The key [to success] is preparation, having systems in place, consistency with management, consistency with players, and then experience,” Bentz added.
“It comes down to investing in players and having the experience for those big moments, because you've got to keep calm. You've got to be able to take those moments and put a performance together when the pressure is on.
“The key at those critical moments is to have experience, be cool, calm, and to be prepared for everything that can happen.”
Les Bleues wow Stade Louis II
France had finished HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2019 one place off automatic Olympic qualification and like Russia had their hopes ended by England at the Rugby Europe regional qualifier.
But, cheered on by the majority of the 5,000-strong crowd inside Stade Louis II, Les Bleues rarely looked in much danger of missing out on one of the two women’s spots available in Monaco.
France coach David Courteix was able to rotate his star-studded squad in the pool stage as Colombia, Madagascar and Hong Kong were beaten by an aggregate score of 151-0.
Colombia were defeated again in the qualifier semi-finals, before they came up against another Pool C rivals, Hong Kong, in the final.
Lina Guerin and Anne-Cécile Ciofani each scored a hat-trick in the showpiece match, while Okemba crossed for her ninth and 10th tries of the weekend, as France secured their return to the Games with a 51-0 victory.
“We’re super happy, but not finished,” Guerin said after the final.
“[The Olympics] won’t be the same thing because of the pandemic, but we have a better team now, so we are expecting something bigger than the last time.”